Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Final Fantasy I & II Dawn of Souls

Final Fantasy I & II Dawn of SoulsOther (Nintendo)

Funny thing about handheld systems: time has not really been kind to the two games contained in this collection, unless you're playing them during an otherwise dull car/bus/plane trip. A quick ten minutes here and there leavens even the most tedious level-up marathon, when the alternative is to stare out the window at the wing and engine.
True, "level-up marathon" is probably a harsh description for Final Fantasy I and II, but there's no denying that they hail from the days when you didn't have a great deal of control over how your party developed, a trend that you can just see beginning to happen here. At a time when most console RPGs provided you with preestablished characters with a linear stat and skill progression, FFI did give you the unusual freedom of allowing you to populate your party of four with whatever combination of the six classes you want; nothing will stop you from stocking up with four black mages, if you're feeling masochistic.
If you are foolhardy enough to select that kind of party, this version of FFI is more accommodating than the original. A subtle rebalancing of the magic system makes magic-users much more useful than the original game, but not as ridiculously overpowered as the recent Final Fantasy Origins for PSone. Those games used the "X number of uses for Y level of magic" system, borrowed from Dungeons & Dragons, which is easy to unbalance: the original game gave you too few, and the PSone remake was overly generous. The Dawn of Souls edition replaces this with a proper MP system, so that you can't use Cure 1 40 times and Cure 3 20 more.
The MP issue is the biggest change to FFI's battle system, but it's not the only overhaul the game received. There are four new elemental dungeons to try your hand at, each of which is unlocked after beating one of the four fiends. For those who've memorized every in and out of the main game, these will be the big draw: each one is populated with new enemies (which are just palette-swapped versions of regular ones, but still neat) and guest-star bosses from Final Fantasy III, IV, V, and VI. Even better, the structure of the new dungeons seems drawn from the old Final Fantasy Legend Game Boy titles: they break up the action every few floors with a crazy rooms filled with scholars and libraries, or a flooded village where you have to get around by canoe, or even areas based on the world map where you need to raise the airship in order to find the exit.
There's also new content in Final Fantasy II, but since it's new story sequences instead of new gameplay scenes, it won't mean as much to you if you didn't already play the FF Origins version of the game. And if you didn't, we don't blame you, since it's probably the most irritating and vaguely-defined title in the series.
The good news is that, like FFI, the Dawn of Souls version of FFII has been rebalanced to make it more playable. The game features a "common sense" but ultimately strange experience system thanks to Akitoshi Kawazu, who remains at large in the development community. The way your party members develop is based on what happens in battle; if they use swords a lot, they'll get better with swords. If they take a lot of damage, their HP will go up accordingly. Using spells will cause the spell levels to rise, and so on for most of the statistics in the game.
Previously, the problem was that each statistic required so much in-battle use to improve that the only way to get anywhere was to exploit a glitch in the game or attack your own party members. With Dawn of Souls, the "experience" for each stat has been reduced to sane levels, so that you can more or less stay au courant with the enemy's levels by proceeding normally through the game. That's not to say the vagueness is entirely eliminated, though -- my problem is that without any feedback as to how close you are toward leveling up a statistic, it can feel like treading water a lot of the time. Since leveling up is best done in short bursts during transit, it's not a good sign when you can stop playing and have no idea what you've just accomplished, if anything.
FFII lets down the side a little, and even with the bonus content, these aren't really the best RPGs on the system. But they've historic games, and they've been buffed up to the best they'll ever be, so if you're a fan of the genre, it's a nice little package you'd do well to check out.

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